Wild down Sharks in a shootout

Well, the Wild did it. They won against a good team and, with the exception of the last few minutes of the game, played a very good game.

Of course, the last few minutes of the game almost saw the wheels come off entirely and the Wild skated through overtime by the skin of their teeth to get to the shootout and then got the win off of goals from Matt Cullen and Mikko Koivu and two good saves by Josh .

According to many people, the buzz word of the day today for Mike Yeo was “fight.”

He wasn’t talking about dropping the mitts (though the Wild came very close a couple times). Instead, he was talking about pushing back. Fighting for the win.

In other words, showing a little passion.

The Wild got a lead early in the game with Cal Clutterbuck sniping a horribly positioned Antti Niemi (I’m not a goalie and even I could tell you he was way too far back in his crease) and the Wild used that momentum to keep the pressure on the Sharks for most of the first period.

A very poor decision by Kyle Brodziak (though it was one heck of a two-hand to Joe Thornton’s boot) got the Wild two-men down with just a few minutes left in the first period and the Sharks capitalized with a Dan Boyle shot that got through a screen and past Josh Harding.

Warren Peters scored the lone goal in the second, crashing the net and seeing the puck carom into the net off of him and past Niemi. Just a few moments later, it was almost 3-1 as Matt Cullen hit the post and Casey Wellman then put in the rebound which was lying on Antti Niemi’s breezers, but the ref blew the whistle to stop play right as Wellman was getting his stick on it. It might have been an early whistle, but it was the type of play that might have broken the Wild in the past few games – but not in this one. The Wild kept pushing, even after the unfortunate break and…

…Nick Johnson made it 3-1 in the third with another beautiful snipe on a horribly positioned Niemi. In fact it was almost identical to the shot that Clutterbuck took on Niemi.

The Sharks didn’t have an ounce of quit in them, though, and fought back to make it 3-2 with a gorgeous deflection from Benn Ferriero that Josh Harding didn’t even see (evidenced by the fact that he was standing straight up when the puck went past him) and they put the pressure back on the Wild.

The difference between the Wild, tonight, and the Wild over the last handful of games was that they didn’t give up. In fact, they pushed back and fought as if their lives depended on it (and, for some, their lives with the Minnesota Wild very well might have). They fought and, just under four minutes later, Casey Wellman Matt Cullen put the Wild back up by two, driving to the net, getting the shot on and then being fortunate enough to have a Casey Wellman shot deflect off of his leg on the way in.

Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau had something to say about the Wild’s win, though, tallying goals 22 seconds apart to tie the game at four with time winding down.

And that’s where you could feel the wheels start to come off.

The Wild’s confidence was shaken. They started to doubt again. Had there been any more time left on the clock, they very well might have fallen. But they hung on and got the game to the shootout, where they were finally able to put it away.

Some Thoughts

  • Cool story about Cal Clutterbuck’s goal. Clutterbuck spoke to Jack Jablonski before the game and promised him he would score for him. It’s not Babe Ruth, calling his shot, but it’s cool nonetheless.
  • Devin Setoguchi was a healthy scratch for having a little too much fun on Monday night with his old teammates and missing a team meeting Tuesday morning. I get that he’s young, but he’s got to be smarter than that. According to Yeo, he’ll get a fresh slate on Wednesday, but what he did damaged both his teammates’ and his coach’s trust in him. He’s going to have to work to get that back.
  • Casey Wellman looked spectacular for most of the game. I’d say that, for a good chunk of it, he was the best Wild player out there. He had two assists and looked very much at home on the Wild’s second line. He finally is starting to look like he belongs in the NHL.
  • Josh Harding looked solid. I’d have a hard time pinning any of the Sharks’ goals specifically on him. Now, I’m a huge Backstrom supporter, but I think Harding has earned the chance to run with the ball a bit and see if he can help the Wild get hot again.
  • Huge, huge win for the Wild. If they lose, they’re in ninth place, just three points from 12th. With the win, they’re in seventh place, three points ahead of the ninth place team. They’re also just three points out of fifth and seven out of first with a lot of hockey left to play.

Burning Questions

Can the Wild score? Four goals in regulation, plus two more in the shootout. I’d say that, at least for one game, they found their scoring touch again.

Can the Wild play with trust in their teammates and their system? They did. They were supporting the puck all over the ice and they played within their system quite well for the majority of the game. They had a relapse towards the end of the third and in overtime, but they were still able to come away with the important thing – two points.

Can Josh Harding have another stellar night? Stellar? That’s debatable. But good? Yes. If I’m Mike Yeo, I give him another shot on Thursday in Chicago.

Can the Wild stay healthy? So far, it seems like they did.

Will the Wild make Matt Cullen’s 1,000th game a memorable one? A win, a goal for Cullen and a shootout goal for Cullen. I’d say it was pretty memorable.

3 Stars

1)      Matt Cullen – His 1,000th game saw him pot a goal, the game-winning shootout goal and have a solid, solid game.

2)      Dan Boyle – A goal and two assists, plus a dynamic performance all around.

3)      Casey Wellman – Two assists and a terrific game all around.

Since Hindsight is 20/20, We’re Looking Ahead

It’s not quite official yet, Wild Nation-ites, but it’s all but that. 

The Wild will miss the playoffs for the second straight season. 

The is still an infinitesimal chance that they could pull it out, but it would involve the Wild coming out and putting together a 5-0 stretch run combined with every single team that they’re chasing tanking. 

In other words: 

It ain’t gonna happen. 

Chuck Fletcher has a long, arduous road ahead of him too, because the cold hard facts have laid out a pretty rocky looking off season, so let’s play some fact and fiction here, shall we? 

FACT: Minnesota has approximately $48.2 million tied up in 18 players for next season. 

FACT: Minnesota has definite needs to be addressed at forward and not a whole lot of roster spaces or money to do so. 

FICTION: The Wild will be able to address their need for a scoring threat in free agency. 

FICTION: There are a number of free agents that could fill the Wild’s needs. 

Now, before you get all up in arms about this, let’s think this through rationally. 

You can cross Ilya Kovalchuk off your wish list.  It ain’t gonna happen unless Fletcher can work some sort of cap magic.  Kovie wants the league maximum and the Wild don’t even have league maximum type of space. 

Patrick Marleau is an intriguing option, but he’s been playing on a line with Jumbo Joe and Heater for most season.  It would be a risk and I don’t know that it would necessarily be a risk worth taking. 

Alexander Frolov?  I don’t know that we want another underachieving European forward. 

Tomas Plekanec? If he doesn’t re-sign with Montreal, their entire ownership will likely be run out of town. 

Ray Whitney?  Not at 37. Olli Jokinen?  No thanks.  Chris Higgins?  Not a chance. 

You get the picture. 

But, looking forward to 2011, there’s more potential there. 

Brad Richards, Joe Thornton, Alexander Semin, Simon Gagne, Martin St. Louis, Patrice Bergeron, Tim Connolly and Michael Ryder are all players that should at least be intriguing for Wild fans. 

Will all of them get to free agency? 

Probably not.  But there’s a good chance that a few might. 

So this off season is likely going to be filled with the Wild filling out their roster with role players — players that aren’t going to set the world on fire, but that aren’t going to be bad pick ups either. 

This off season, though, I think could be telling of how quickly the Wild will be built into the mold of what Fletcher wants. 

Below is a list of what I imagine will be keys to the Wild’s off season: 

  • Re-sign Guillaume Latendresse.
    • Say what you will about his performance this season, but Latendresse has proven that he’s a valuable player.  He’s managed to shake just about every single knock that Montreal fans have had against him and has been our best player since coming over in the trade.  The problem with this is that you don’t know what player you’re going to be signing.  Will you be getting the Guillaume Latendresse that was benched or skated on the fourth line in Montreal, or will you be getting his super-powered alter ego, The Tenderness, who has lit the lamp more times in one season than anyone to wear a Wild sweater not named Gaborik or Rolston?  It is conceivable that he’s got contract year-itis, but it’s also possible that the pressure being lifted off of his shoulders is doing wonders for his career.  Listening to him talk, I’d say it’s the latter of the two.  To be safe, though, I can’t see the Wild signing him to longer than a two-year deal with the promise of more talks to come if he keeps it up.
  • Lock Mikko Koivu up long-term.
    • This is a no-brainer.  While Koivu may never be a 100+ point player (though he could be with the right line mates), he is the heart and soul of this franchise.  I would like to see him signed to a Datsyuk-ian or Zetterberg-ian contract, meaning the rest of his career for a reasonable cap hit.
  • Hit the trade market
    • You’ve no doubt gathered by now that I just don’t believe that vast improvements through the free agent market this season are going to happen.  I’m not saying that it’s an impossibility — just more of an improbability.  Where the Wild are going to make an impact this off season is the same place that they made an impact this season.  The trade market.

Now I know that neither of these three are a huge revelation to anyone.  Latendresse are our two top players this season and Fletcher has shown a penchant to making good trades this season.  But I’d like to stay on that last one for just a moment. 

Trades are going to be made.  Plain and simple. 

And, given the performance of the team down the stretch, I’d say there aren’t many players that are safe.  In fact, I’ll list all the players that I think might be safe from trade. 

Mikko Koivu
Guillaume Latendresse
Martin Havlat
Pierre-Marc Bouchard
Cal Clutterbuck
Casey Wellman
Brent Burns
Cam Barker
Greg Zanon
Josh Harding 

Now, let me be clear.  There are two names on there that are on there due to injury status and not for any other reason.  Bouchard and Harding’s stock has got to be at an all-time low, which is one big reason why I think we’ll see Harding back in Minnesota next season. 

At forward, Koivu and Latendresse are fairly obvious.  Havlat, despite his horrible start to the season, has been pretty good in the new year, with 11 goals and 19 assists for 36 points in 36 games with a minus-four rating and even then Fletcher wouldn’t trade his big free agency pick up this early in the game…Plus, you know, no movement clause.  Clutterbuck is, well, Clutterbuck.  There’s no way that Fletcher is going to trade Wellman after winning out over 21 other teams.  Burns has played his way onto this list over the last couple weeks.  Barker was the centerpiece of the Johnsson trade and there’s no way that he’s going to be traded after giving up so much and Zanon…Well…Yeah. 

This is to say that, if you don’t see your favorite player on this list you might want to at least prepare yourself for the idea that he’s not going to be wearing the Iron Range Red next season. 

I’m not saying that everyone but these ten will be gone.  Far from it.  There are quite a few players in the organization that I think it would take a killer deal for the Wild to agree to trade (Backstrom and Schultz being two of these), but that being said…I truly don’t think that there are many players that Fletcher wouldn’t listen to offers for. 

Overall, the prognosis could be good for Minnesota next season.  The team has, legitimately, five top-four defensemen (Burns, Schultz, Barker, Zidlicky and Zanon) and one more that could turn into one if he’s healthy (Stoner).  They have one world class goaltender (Backstrom) who will be coming off of a down season (can you say incentive?) and potentially another (Harding) who will be looking to increase his value for his UFA day.  Then, at forward they’ll be getting Butch back (God-willing), will have a full season with The Tenderness, and have a young core with a bunch more experience. 

They might not be the best team in the league, but they’re a team that 1) is struggling through an injury-riddled season and 2) have had a few players who have not contributed to the extent that they were expected to. 

Do we have significant holes? 

Without a doubt.  But we also have enough on our roster to overcome these holes and become a potentially dangerous team. 

While they admit it or not, the Wild management is certainly undertaking some semblance of a rebuild.  Our former general manager (who will not be named in this blog) did his best to make sure that his predecessor wouldn’t have an easy job ahead of him, but you can see signs that the organization is headed in the right direction. 

Hopefully they have a roadmap so they don’t get lost along the way.

An Early Look at the Off Season Pt. II – The Forwards

In my previous blog, I looked at the situation of the Wild for this coming off season and their impending free agents, both unrestricted and otherwise.

The Wild potentially have six forward spots to fill from within and through free agency.  There are a few players in the system that might be ready to step up but, on a whole, the Wild will likely be looking elsewhere for help.

So…

Here…We….Go.

Forwards
Ilya Kovalchuk – LW – 28 – Est. Salary: $11M
The bottom line is that Kovalchuk is the best of the best of this off season.  He is exactly what the Minnesota Wild need and exactly what they can’t afford.  At least not with their cap situation over the next couple seasons.  Kovalchuk would be a dream to see playing alongside Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu, to be sure, but with a potential $42+ million already spent on 15 players, it would be very, very difficult for the Wild to fit in a cap hit of $11M for one player.

That said Kovalchuk is the type of player that you make the cap room work for.  The Thrashers current captain has scored 40+ goals in five straight seasons, two of which he scored 50+.  He is a finisher, plain and simple, and a player that the Wild would love to get their hands on.

Despite the fact that Kovalchuk has only been to the playoffs once (for four games), he has provided leadership to an otherwise leaderless Thrashers team and he has also proven his worth in international tournaments as well, most recently last season’s World Championships in which he had five goals and 14 points in nine games.

Wild Nation Verdict: A dream come true.  Kovalchuk would be the finisher that the Wild so desperately need.  As it stands now, though, the Wild would need to do some serious finagling with their roster to both fit Kovalchuk AND field a full roster – especially not while he is expecting to make the league maximum.  If Minnesota can utilize the loopholes to get the cap hit down to seven or eight million, then it’s doable.  If not, you’ll see Kovalchuk playing elsewhere in the league.

Patrick Marleau – C – 31 – Est. Salary: $7-8M
Marleau has had an up and down career, but is certainly well on his way to a career season in what could be his last in San Jose.  He is just 11 goals away from tying his career high and he’s topped 25 goals in six of his last eight full seasons (not to mention topping it already this season) and he’s topped 30 in three of his last four.

San Jose will have some difficult decisions to make this off season and losing their former captain may very well be one of them.  If that is the case, he could be a lesser substitute for Kovalchuk.  Marleau is nowhere near as dynamic as the Russian sniper, but he is still a solid scorer and a much better two-way player.

The biggest question mark is whether or not Marleau’s inflated production this season is due to an improvement with him or his linemates.  Either way, however, he would be a welcome addition and one that the Wild could afford as well.

Wild Nation Verdict: It wouldn’t be the ideal situation, but it wouldn’t be a bad one either.  Marleau is a proven scorer and he can play a two-way game – something that Minnesotans appreciate.  While not as quick or dynamic as the aforementioned Kovalchuk, he still brings a lot to the table.  Not only that, but his salary would allow for the Wild to fill other holes in their roster as well.

Olli Jokinen – C – 32 – Est. Salary: $5M
Jokinen will be going into next season coming off of a down year.  After scoring 29 goals and 57 points last season, Jokinen has just eight goals through 42 games this season.  He’s been a dynamic scorer in the past and is capable of being one again, but the problem lies in his attitude.

Since coming to Calgary, Jokinen has been talked of as being a “locker room cancer” and his underperformance this season has played a large part in bringing this talk to the forefront.  Keeping that in mind, however, he has scored 20+ goals in his last six seasons and 30+ goals in four of these.  He has the talent, but the biggest question is if he has the desire and the drive.

Wild Nation Verdict: No thank you.  As talented as Jokinen is, the rumors of him being a cancer in the locker room are just not enticing.  Coming off of a low point into this off season, a team could find themselves with a bargain should he right the ship.  For a Wild team struggling to find their identity on and off the ice, however, I just don’t see that happening.

Saku Koivu – C – 36 – Est. Salary: $3-4M
While Koivu is not the player he was in his prime, there’s no doubt that he can still be an effective player.  The question is, in what capacity.  He is having a solid season thus far for Anaheim and could well find himself north of the 20 goal plateau again.  He was linked strongly to the Wild during the off season and will again likely be linked to the team until he retires because of his brother.

The question mark with Koivu remains how much tread is left on the tires?  He has struggled with injuries of the last few seasons and one has got to believe that all of those injuries will begin to take their toll.  In addition, he has stated that he doesn’t want to step on his brother’s toes by coming into Minnesota.  But would he consider taking on a role as a third line center with the team, as he is still a fantastic defensive player.

Wild Nation Verdict: Time will tell and maybe the Olympics will help him answer some of these questions; however Koivu remains an unlikely possibility for Minnesota, but a possibility nonetheless.  The elder Koivu would be a fantastic third line center, but for the price, they could likely do better.

Alexander Frolov – LW – 29 – Est. Salary: $5-7M
Frolov is an admittedly intriguing player for Minnesota to consider.  He is a dynamic scorer, though not quite as impressive as Kovalchuk, but he is enigmatic as well.  Despite having an off season, Frolov is the type of talent that most simply won’t be able to ignore.

He’s scored 20+ goals in all but his first season in the NHL and has topped 30 twice in that time, not to mention showing that he has the potential to top 70 points on a regular basis when healthy.  The problem with Frolov has always lied in his work ethic, but the Wild could be looking at a situation similar to what they had with Guillaume Latendresse – simply a player that needs a change in scenery.

Wild Nation Verdict: If neither Kovalchuk or Marleau are attainable or available, the Wild should consider Frolov.  In the right system, in the right situation, Frolov could be an extremely dangerous player.  With playmakers like Koivu, Brunette and Havlat, Frolov could be downright lethal.  It’s just a matter of whether or not he’s able to put a full season together.

Chris Higgins – C – 28 – Est. Salary: $2-3M
Another enigmatic player this off season is Chris Higgins.  Higgins burst onto the scene in Montreal, scoring 20+ goals in his first three full seasons with the team before fading away this season and last.  The talent is there, but he just hasn’t been able to recreate his success in his early seasons.

Despite his struggles, Higgins is a big bodied, talented player – something that Chuck Fletcher likes.  The Wild had success with a similar enigmatic Montreal player and therefore could take a chance on Higgins.  He has the potential to be a very low-risk, high-reward player as well.

Wild Nation Verdict: I’ll be honest.  If the cards fall in the right manner, the Wild could take a chance on Higgins.  He could fill in an important role on the Wild and, honestly, the price could be right for him as well.

There are obviously many more prospective forwards out there for the Wild to consider, but these are just a few of the ones I find most intriguing.  Chuck Fletcher has a unique opportunity to build this team the way he wants it to be built and there is no doubt that the forwards are where he is planning on starting.

As I’ve mentioned, this is obviously devoid of any possible trades he might make or players he might secure during these trades, but one thing is for sure…The Wild are firmly in his hands right now.

Up Next: Defensemen

The Rise and Fall of the Lifetime Contract?

The NHL needs to institute “Term Limits.”

No…I’m not talking about for its long lamented commissioner.  I’m not talking about for the coaches or general managers.  I’m talking about for the players.

Okay.  So maybe term limit isn’t exactly the right turn of phrase.  But the concept remains.  These “lifetime contracts” are getting absolutely ridiculous.  Sure…They’re a great way to fit your superstar players under the cap.  But, honestly, do they seem a bit shortsighted to anyone else?

Consider Chris Pronger and his $6.25M cap hit.

Not a bad deal for a superstar defenseman, right?  And look at this!  You’re going to have him for $525K per for the last two years of the contract.  Talk about a bargain!

But wait…Hold on.  If he decides to play those last two years…You’ll be paying him $525K…But be on the hook for $6.25M?  Well that doesn’t sound very good.  But, that’s Chris Pronger.  It’s a unique situation.

Okay…So Henrik Zetterberg.  There’s a good contract.  $6.083M cap hit.  That’s a great deal for a player of Hank’s caliber.  But what about when you’re paying him $1M per year in the twilight of his career, yet still on the hook for just over $6M?

Sure, these contracts look great now.  But how about when a player doesn’t have enough tread on the tires to live up to the contract?

Take Brendan Shanahan, for example.  Give him one of those front loaded contracts back in the 2000-01 season.  It looks fantastic when he’s averaging 60-70 points a season and 30-40 goals.  But after a 73 game, 46 point performance?  What about a 34 game, 14 point performance?  It begins to look a lot worse.

Or what about Sergei Fedorov?  Give him one of those contracts back in the same season and it’s looking great when he’s putting up 30-goal, 60-point seasons.  Then he dips down to average 15-goal, 40-point seasons.  Great for the beginning, pretty poor for the end.

The bottom line is that these long-term contracts will only benefit these teams for so long.  Eventually, however, the production of the majority of these players will begin to fall off.  Sure, there will be the odd player that has a career like Joe Sakic has had, whose production stays consistent right up until the end of his career, but the majority of these players?  By the end of their careers, they won’t be worth the cap hit — most of them nowhere near.  Sure…In 2013, Pavel Datsyuk will likely be as productive as he is now.  But will Henrik Zetterberg in 2020?  What about Vincent Lecavalier in 2019?  I highly doubt it.

Don’t get me wrong.  These contracts are great for the players…But they’re horrible for the NHL.  What’s more…They’re horrible for the fans.

Why?

Take a look at this.  The top free agents for 2010?  Nicklas Lidstrom, Roberto Luongo and Ilya Kovalchuk.  If you think that any of these three won’t be locked up (or in Lidstrom’s case, retired) by then, you’re crazy.  After that?  The crop is still decent…Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Olli Jokinen…All good players, all potential game changers…But bona fide 100% pure superstars, they aren’t.

In 2011?  You’ve got Brad Richards, Zdeno Chara and Joe Thornton…But there isn’t a UFA under the age of 31 until you get to Patrice Bergeron and, no offense to him, but I hardly think that teams will be knocking down his door.

2012?  A class headlined by Chris Drury, Ryan Smyth and Brian Rafalski.

Finally, in 2013, you get Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nathan Horton, all under 30…But does anyone really think that four out of the five of them will be available?

Talk about nothing for fans to get excited about.  Let me tell you that, if in 2012 I’m getting excited about the possibilities of the Minnesota Wild signing a 35 year old Chris Drury or a 36 year old Ryan Smyth, I should be committed.

The bottom line is that these long-term contracts are a plague on the NHL.  The more long-term contracts get signed, the more teams will, not only handcuff themselves, but handcuff the league’s ability to spread parity throughout.  Not only that, but it harms the fans as well.  A lack of marquee free agents during the off season can kill any momentum that the league has with the fans.

The CBA is expiring soon and it’s looking more and more like there could be another labor dispute looming.  But one thing is for certain.  In the new CBA, the NHL needs to impose some sort of limitation on the length of contracts…Not only for the entertainment of the fans, but for the long term health of the league as well.